“Handwork in Wood” – Wood Hand Tools Part Two: Chisels

The following comes from William Noyes’s 1910 classic, Handwork in Wood. See also “Handwork in Wood” – Wood Hand Tools Part One: Traditional Cutting Tool Concepts.

In the modern chisel, all the grinding is done on one side. This constitutes the essential feature of the chisel, namely, that the back of the blade is kept perfectly flat and the face is ground to a bevel. Blades vary in width from 1⁄16 inch to 2 inches. Next to the blade on the end of which is the cutting edge, is the shank, Fig. 65. Next, as in socketed chisels, there is the socket to receive the handle, or, in tanged chisels, a shoulder and four-sided tang which is driven into the handle, which is bound at its lower end by a ferrule. The handle is usually made of apple wood.


Fig. 65. Firmer-Chisel.

The most familiar form is the firmer-chisel, Fig. 65, which is said to get its name from the fact that it is firmer or stiffer than the paring-chisel. (See below.) The firmer-chisel is a general utility tool, being suited for hand pressure or mallet pounding, for paring or for light mortising.

Different varieties of chisels are named; (1) according to their uses; as paring-chisels, framing-chisels, mortise-chisels, carving-chisels, turning-chisels, etc.

Fig. 66. Paring-Chisel.  Fig. 67. Framing-Chisel.  Fig. 68. Mortise-Chisel.

Fig. 66. Paring-Chisel.  Fig. 67. Framing-Chisel.  Fig. 68. Mortise-Chisel.

The paring-chisel, Fig. 66, has a handle specially shaped to give control over its movements, and a long thin blade, which in the best form is beveled on the two edges to facilitate grooving. It is intended only for steady pressure with the hand and not for use with a mallet.

The framing-chisel, Fig. 67, is thick and heavy and was formerly much used in house framing. It is usually made with the handle fitting into a socket on the shank, in order to withstand the shock of heavy blows from the mallet.

The mortise-chisel, Fig. 68, is made abnormally thick to give the stiffness necessary for levering the waste out of mortises.

(2) Chisels are also named according to their shapes: as, skew-chisels, corner-chisels, round-nosed chisels, etc. The angle of the bevel of a chisel is determined by the kind of wood for which it is most used, hard wood requiring a wider angle than soft wood, in. For order to support the edge ordinary work, the bevel is correctly ground to an angle of about 20°. The chisel is a necessary tool in making almost every kind of joint. It may almost be said that one mark of a good workman is his preference for the chisel. Indeed an excellent motto for the woodworker is: “When in doubt, use a chisel”. (See our Basics of Joinery Course and you’ll see why.)

In general, there are two uses for the chisel (1), when it is driven by a push with the hand, as in paring, and (2), when it is driven by blows of a mallet, as in digging mortises. In relation to the grain of the wood, it is used in three directions: (1) longitudinally, that is with the grain, called paring; (2) laterally, across the surface, called cutting sidewise; (3) transversely, that is across the end, called cutting end-wood.


Fig. 69. Paring with a Chisel.

1. Paring. To remove shavings rapidly, the chisel is held flat side up, the handle grasped by the right hand, with the thumb pointing toward the shank, and the blade held in the left hand, as in Fig. 69. Held in this way great control can be exerted and much force applied. For paring the surface as flat and smooth as possible, the chisel should be reversed, that is, held so that the flat side will act as a guide. Held in this way the chisel has no equal for paring except the plane. Paring with the chisel is the method used in cutting stop chamfers. By holding the cutting edge obliquely to the direction of the grain and of the cut, the effective “sliding cut” is obtained, Fig. 64.


Fig. 70. Chiseling Out a Dado. (First Step).


Fig. 71. Chiseling Out a Dado. (Second Step).

Fig. 72. Perpendicular Chiseling.

Fig. 72. Perpendicular Chiseling.

2. In sidewise chiseling the chisel is held in the same manner as in paring. A typical form of sidewise chiseling is the cutting out of a dado, Fig. 70. The work may be placed on the bench-hook or held in the vise with the side up from which the groove is to be cut. The chisel is pushed directly across the grain, the blade being somewhat inclined to the upper surface so as to cut off a corner next the saw kerf. After a few cuts thus made with the chisel inclined alternately both ways, the ridge thus formed is taken off, Fig. 71. In this way the surface is lowered to the required depth. If more force be required, the palm of the hand may be used as a mallet.

3. In chiseling end-wood, it is well, if possible, to rest the piece to be trimmed flat on the cutting board or on a piece of waste wood. Work done in this way is often called perpendicular chiseling, Fig.72. The handle is grasped in the right hand, thumb up, while the blade of the chisel passes between the thumb and first finger of the left hand, the back of which rests on the work and holds it in place. As the right hand pushes the chisel downwards the thumb and first finger of the left hand control its motion. When chiseling it is well to stand so as to look along the line being cut. Incline the chisel toward you, and use the near part of the cutting edge for a guide and the farther corner for cutting, pushing the handle both down and forward at the same time, Fig. 73. Or, by pushing the chisel sidewise with the thumb of the left hand at the same time that the right hand pushes it downward, the effective sliding cut is obtained.

Fig. 73. Chiseling End Wood.

Fig. 73. Chiseling End Wood.

Fig. 74. Paring a Corner Round.

Fig. 74. Paring a Corner Round.

Fig. 75. Right and Wrong Ways of Perpendicular Chiseling.

Fig. 75. Right and Wrong Ways of Perpendicular Chiseling.

End chiseling requires considerable force and therefore only thin shavings should be cut off at a time. Or the mallet may be used with caution. In order to leave a smooth surface the chisel must be very sharp. Even then the lower arris (corner) is likely to be splintered off. This can be prevented by clamping the work down tight with a handscrew to a perfectly smooth cutting board. It is often advisable however, to set the piece upright in the vise and pare off thin shavings horizontally, Fig. 74. In rounding a corner, both this and perpendicular chiseling are common methods. In both cases care should be taken to cut from the side toward the end and not into the grain, lest the piece split, Fig. 75. In horizontal end paring, Fig. 74, in order to prevent splintering, it is well to trim down the arrises diagonally to the line and then to reduce the rest of the end surface.

In all hand chiseling, it is a wise precaution not to try to cut out much material at each stroke but to work back gradually to the line.

Fig. 76. Mallet Chiseling. 

Fig. 76. Mallet Chiseling. The Piece is Clamped Down on the Bench With the Bench Hook.

A typical form of mallet chiseling is the digging of a mortise, Fig. 76. The chisel is held perpendicular in the left hand, while the right hand drives blows with the mallet. The hammer should never be used. By rocking the chisel and at the same time giving it a twisting motion while the edge is kept on the wood, the edge can be stepped to the exact place desired. Care should be taken to work back to the lines gradually, to cut only part way thru from each side (in the case of a thru mortise-and-tenon), and to keep the cut faces perpendicular to the surfaces.

Noyes, W. (1910). Chapter IV. WOOD HAND TOOLS. In Handwork in Wood (pp. 54-59). Peoria, Ill.: Manual Arts Press

Learn all about chisels and more online here at the Heritage School of Woodworking’s Online Woodworking Courses. Be sure to check out the Basics of Joinery course; it’s got lots of chiseling! This blog is also relevant to this article: Learn the three basic wood joints. Then build most anything!

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